Robert Clayton was still a photography undergraduate at the University of Wolverhampton when, in 1991, he decided to create a body of work based on the Lion Farm Estate in Birmingham. Unbeknown to him at the time, the resulting images would come to be of historic importance. Estate sought to explore the ironies of life at the edges of society and wound up revealing the ruins of post-industrial Britain at the end of Thatcher's term in office. I'm not sure when I first discovered Clayton's images in the long hours that followed the election result earlier this month, but I've been coming back to them ever since; drawn, by something like masochism, to the ominous message they carry as we enter a new term of unabated Tory rule.
Though they're a little rough around the edges - shoes poke into the frame, subjects are slightly off-centre - the images captured as part of the Estate series possess a sensitivity that has clearly served Clayton well throughout his career. Now a professional photographer used to capturing the upper echelons of British society - from Boris Johnson to Chuka Umunna - the days of flanking strangers in the queue to collect their giro are perhaps behind him, but this recent stroke of retrospection couldn't be more timely.
During a conversation last week, Clayton admitted that he only recently realised the poignancy of Estate and the photos captured at the beginning of his career. With an exhibition of the works opening in June, and an accompanying book published and available online, Clayton not only offers us a window into the past, but a projection for great swathes of Britain in the coming years as well.
The first image I came across was of an old man and his dog stood outside of a pub owned by Mitchells and Butlers - the company that gave you Shandy Bass, All Bar One and the Toby Carvery. While their property portfolio extends the length of the UK, Midlands residents are treated to an especially high concentration of M&B establishments owing to it being the location of their headquarters. Credit where it's due, the company kept my nan in work for several decades, before writing off her last pub to make way for a KFC. A service to humanity on all accounts: M&B pubs have a reputation for being the final resting point of many a poor sod's sanity/marriage and the Sugarbrook Bromsgrove was no exception.
In that same photo, the dog faces the opposite direction as if willing his owner to turn back. But in the relentlessly bleak landscape of the Lion Farm estate, the M&B sign glows like a beacon of escape. It is a light mirrored in the neon orange, pink, green and yellow signs, sellotaped to the inside of the off-licence (or the 'outdoor' as almost everyone referred to it) advertising Napoleon Brandy at £4.99 and Old England Sherry at £2.25.
In another shot we see a boy helping an older woman dressed in a quilted jacket and head-scarf, move a carpet with a wheelbarrow. In another, two women carry a fireplace along the pavement of a cul-de-sac whose sign reads 'Crusader Close'. Relocation within the estate was common at Lion Farm and an essay by the ever brilliant Jonathan Meades accompanying the series explains how this was an indirect result of Thatcher's infamous right-to-buy scheme.
Dividing social housing into two tiers of desirability, houses became popular commodities, while the incentive to maintain tower blocks quickly disappeared. This, along with many other repercussions of the scheme, stripped social housing of its dignity and plunged once-respectable homes into spiralling levels of disrepute. The need to up-sticks befell thousands of people, keen to keep their families housed in well-serviced, intact buildings.
A similar phenomenon is taking place now, only this time it is less overt. Not a scheme perhaps, but, more worryingly, the incremental gains made by foreign investors whose ambitions will only be hastened along with the implementation of TTIP. As the case of the New Era estate in East London shows us, council estates are of little concern to Westminster beyond the possible retail opportunity they offer to a country desperate to make itself more desirable on the international market. And while social housing outside of the capital might be more readily available, and protected from the clutches of corporate investment for the time being, their dignity is bound to diminish as the incentive to maintain it is relegated to the very bottom of the priority list.
Clayton's Estate will become the norm for social housing under the current government. A place where mown grass verges, customer service and courgettes are figments of a televisual fantasy. Where luxury lifestyles sold in adverts are not aspirational, but like the smiling-face of an estate agent pumping Wiz Khalifa from his Mini Coupe: smug and bullish. The lowest form of dick-slinging. This is the land of permanent dislocation from the images created and pedalled by marketing bots transforming the UK into one of the most polarised societies in Europe. It is life in the centre of the country and the edges of an increasingly material society. Where centrality has nothing to do with location and everything to do with money, education and opportunity. Where 21-year-old creatives can price out whole families who have loyally served their local community for decades. Where ashtanga yoga has replaced legitimate interaction and where the appropriation by the fashion industry of symbols denoting poverty has distracted us from the very real issue of poverty that exists all around us.
When the Conservatives were elected to government a few weeks ago, estates were cast even further adrift from a society that ultimately decides their fate. The centre pulls away from the periphery and waves from the sidelines while the undesirable sink further behind and the corporate investors eat up the rest. This is life as seen through the lens of Robert Clayton in 1991 and it is the life that many millions can expect to have thrust upon them under the current government in 2015.
Estate is a book of photographs by Robert Clayton and includes essays by Jonathan Meades and Laura Noble. It is available to order online at: stayfreepublishing.co.uk
Estate opens at L A Noble Gallery in June
Text Nathalie Olah
Photography © Rob Clayton